Though, he’d only made four movies, Brad Bird had had quite the exceptional run for a major Hollywood studio director. His trio of animations, both traditional (the wonderful The Iron Giant) and digital (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) through to his live action debut with the thrilling Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Excellent films all round. Well that all comes crashing to a thudding halt with Tomorrowland, his fifth feature.
Tomorrowland was surrounded with secrecy during production, until some early reviews started appearing last week, I had very little idea what is was about. Usually I’d call that a good thing, but in this case the film itself doesn’t really seem to know either. One thing I didn’t know is that Tomorrowland is named after an area in Disneyland, not having visited I can’t say if they took much from it other than the title but it does allow Disney to get in some rather shameless self-promotion (there’s also a scene in a memorabilia shop that appears to exist in order to remind us that Disney own Star Wars now).
After a pointless framing device in which our two leads Frank (George Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) talk directly to the camera, we’re whisked in flashback to Frank’s childhood in 1964. An aspiring young inventor, he presents his prototype jetpack to David Nix (Hugh Laurie) but is rejected due to it not working properly. Undeterred, and with the assistance of a young girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy) he sneaks in to the futuristic city of Tomorrowland, which conveniently involves him going on Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’ ride.
After another brief flashback to Casey’s childhood, we get her origin too. She’s a young woman of indeterminate age (is she a teenager? I’m not sure) with a passion for space. After getting herself arrested, she comes into the possession of a mysterious badge that when touched, gives her visions of Tomorrowland. These are quite remarkable in their initial presentation, as the world around Casey suddenly switches, but her physical body remains in the ‘real world’. A lot of the retro-future look of the city feels a little familiar, but there are some neat little touches in the background, such as a fascinating multi-level swimming pool.
Casey’s standard ‘hero’s journey’ narrative kicks into gear and she decides to seek out the real Tomorrowland, but first runs into some trouble leading her to encounter both Athena, who’s still a child, and Frank, who’s now middle-aged. This is really where the first major problems with Tomorrowland begin to show. For starters, this set-up has taken absolutely ages and yet we still don’t really know what purpose this story is serving. Frankly, neither does Casey, she’s just seen this place via a weird vision and dropped everything she had going on in her life to try and go there (she lives with her father and brother), and she doesn’t even know that it exists.
This complete lack of focus prevails though the course of 90-odd minutes of the film, ultimately giving it the feel of being about two-thirds set-up with increasing frustration. It also becomes progressively more ridiculous as it goes on, dropping in mysterious robot agents out to kill the central trio, which, like the whole film in itself, make less sense the more you think about them (where are they even coming from anyway?). It later goes steps further in this by casually revealing both a teleportation machine and a rocket ship that have oh-so-conveniently been around for decades just waiting for such an occasion.
By the time we finally learn just what the hell is the purpose of all this many viewers might well have already nodded off, but if so, they’ll miss quite the anti-climax. We know there’s supposed to be something special about Casey and we know there’s some kind of vaguely threatening countdown going on but when she gets the chance to shine, it’s just rather pathetic. I’m still aghast as to how simple a solution she provided to solve the final problem, and how quickly she comes up with it. All this frustrating build-up for so little pay-off (perhaps unsurprisingly, Lost’s Damon Lindelof is a screenwriter).
There are two scenes in Tomorrowland that deserve special mention however. The first is when Casey and Frank must escape a robot attack in his secluded house; we are shown the wide variety of home security creations he’s decked the place out with. It’s a very fun and inventive sequence that calls to mind Wallace and Gromit. The numerous unanswered questions and plot holes in the film would have been so much easier to look past if it was this enjoyable all the way through. Robertson does also deserve a mention for making Casey a generally likeable lead, and a rare female one for a role like this.
The second memorable sequence is the speech the big bad guy gives to explain his way of thinking. This is the Hugh Laurie character we met at the start, he’s already been established rather poorly in that we’re supposed to dislike him for rejecting young Frank’s jetpack, however he does so because it doesn’t work. He tells him, albeit rather smugly, to keep trying until it’s fixed. Well that seems sensible enough doesn’t it? When we finally hear his climactic monologue, it’s the same thing infinitely multiplied. Honestly, almost everything he says pretty much makes sense, particularly in the context of this film. Big, kid-friendly blockbusters, especially ones with such a blatant message as this, really shouldn’t have you siding with the villain.
I’d heard some jokes online before this came out about George Clooney romancing girl of inappropriate age and naturally assumed they were referring to Casey (a troublingly plausible situation). In fact it’s Athena, who always appears to be about 10 years old due to being a robot. There’s actually a potentially good storyline to explore here about someone coming to terms with the fact that they will grow up while the person they like won’t, the sort of thing touched on in vampire movies like Interview with the Vampire or Let the Right One In. This film botches giving us a real idea about what led to Frank initially leaving Tomorrowland though, and the climactic scene he shares with Athena is just terribly uncomfortable. For several moments, it really looks like he’s going to kiss her.
That scene’s pretty stupid from a logical perspective anyway, time-wasting when there’s vital work to be done. Much of the movie is similar, giving us drawn-out sequences of build-up that might have fast paced events going on yet still move the story desperately slowly. Tomorrowland is fairly upfront about what it wants; to put a wide-eyed positive spin on our vision of the future, contrasting the darker, apocalyptic or dystopian ones we’re more accustomed to (and it really spells this out). That’s not such a bad thing, but Tomorrowland should also have been a fun, inspiring sci-fi adventure, instead of the often tedious, often nonsensical shambles that it is.